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Most Americans oppose trans athletes in female sports, poll finds

In Frankfort, Ky., Fischer Wells, right, testifies on Feb. 10 against a bill would bar transgender girls from participating in school sports that match their gender identity. Wells's mother, Jenifer Alonzo, listens at left. (Scott Utterback/Louisville Courier-Journal/AP)
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Even as an increasing share of Americans report familiarity with and tolerance for transgender people, most oppose allowing transgender female athletes to compete against other women at the professional, college and high school level, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.

The poll, conducted May 4 through 17 among 1,503 people across the United States, finds 55 percent of Americans opposed to allowing transgender women and girls to compete with other women and girls in high school sports and 58 percent opposed to it for college and professional sports. About 3 in 10 Americans said transgender women and girls should be allowed to compete at each of those levels, while an additional 15 percent have no opinion.

At the youth level, 49 percent are opposed to transgender girls competing with other girls, while 33 percent say they should be allowed to compete and 17 percent have no opinion.

The poll was taken as an increasing portion of Americans, particularly younger ones, identify as transgender and the issue of whether transgender women and girls should compete against cisgender women and girls has become a point of social and political debate.

Last week, Louisiana joined at least 17 other states in banning transgender women and girls from competing on female sports teams. Much of that legislation across the country has been passed in the past year, led by Republican lawmakers. The Louisiana ban, which applies to all public and some private elementary and secondary schools and colleges, became law after the state’s Democratic governor declined to sign it or veto it.

The issue has become politicized despite the small share of people who identify as transgender and the limited number of specific situations in which participation has raised concerns.

A Pew Research Center poll released last Tuesday found that 0.6 percent of Americans identify as transgender, but among people age 18 to 29, the share rose to 2 percent. An additional 1 percent of Americans said they are nonbinary — neither a man nor a woman, or not strictly one or the other — a share that rose to 3 percent of people 18 to 29.

A 2021 Gallup telephone poll found 0.7 percent of adults identifying as transgender, while a slightly larger percentage identified as gay (1.5 percent), lesbian (1.0 percent), bisexual (4.0 percent) or another non-heterosexual identity (0.3 percent).

FAQ: What you need to know about transgender children

Among athletes, the controversy has centered on transgender women and girls, in particular. Critics say they have an unfair physical advantage against cisgender women and girls because of factors such as generally having a greater muscle mass and larger skeletal frame, bone density and testosterone levels, which can help boost athletic performance.

Critics of the bans say they deny transgender athletes’ right to compete in a space that aligns with their gender, further stigmatizing children who are at greater risk of mental health problems. Critics also say the bans overestimate the extent of trans girls’ and women’s participation in athletics.

The Post-UMD poll finds over two-thirds of Americans, 68 percent, say that transgender girls would have a competitive advantage over other girls if they were allowed to compete with them in youth sports; 30 percent say neither would have an advantage, while 2 percent say other girls would have an advantage.

A slim 52 percent majority say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that transgender girls’ mental health will suffer if they are not allowed to compete with other girls in youth sports; 48 percent are “not too” or “not at all” concerned about this.

Despite being mostly opposed to their participation in sports, the Post-UMD poll finds Americans’ general attitudes toward transgender people to be more positive than negative.

Read Post-UMD poll results

The poll also finds that 40 percent of Americans say greater social acceptance of transgender people is “good for society,” while 25 percent say it is “bad for society,” and another 35 percent say it is “neither good nor bad.” The percentage saying transgender acceptance is bad for society is down from 32 percent in a Pew Research Center survey one year ago.

Transgender acceptance ranges widely depending on age, political leanings and personal connections. Roughly 1 in 6 Americans, 16 percent, know a close friend or family member who is transgender, and 40 percent say they personally know any person who is transgender, apart from acquaintances, the poll finds.

Americans who personally know a close friend or family member who is transgender are twice as likely to say greater social acceptance of transgender people is good for society: 70 percent, compared with 35 percent among those who do not have a transgender friend or family member. Among those who don’t have a transgender friend or family member, 38 percent say social acceptance of transgender people is neither good nor bad, while 28 percent say it is bad.

Nearly two-thirds of Democrats (64 percent) believe that greater social acceptance of transgender people is good for society, compared with 40 percent of Independents and 14 percent of Republicans.

Younger people also report more positive feelings about increasing transgender acceptance, with 54 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 saying it is good for society, compared with 48 percent of Americans in their 30s, 46 percent of those in their 40s, 28 percent of those ages 50 to 64 and 32 percent of people 65 and older. At the same time, less than half of 18-to-29-year-olds say transgender women and girls should be allowed to compete with other female athletes at any level.

It is possible that transgender familiarity and acceptance could be on a similar trajectory to familiarity with gay and lesbian people a generation ago. The 40 percent of people saying they personally know someone transgender echoes the share of Americans who said they personally knew someone who is gay or lesbian in a 1992 CBS News/New York Times poll (42 percent); that figure grew to 77 percent in a 2010 CBS News poll.

Americans’ attitudes about transgender athletes appear malleable, and some polls asking differing questions have found contrasting results. The Post-UMD results are similar to 2021 Gallup poll results, which indicated 62 percent of Americans said transgender athletes should be allowed to play only on sports teams that match their birth gender rather than gender identity. However, a May 2022 survey conducted by SSRS found 59 percent of Americans saying they oppose banning transgender girls from participating in K-12 girls sports, while 41 percent supported a ban.

Transgender people have also become increasingly common in popular culture, from retired Olympian and media personality Caitlin Jenner to the reality TV series “I Am Jazz,” about a transgender teenager.

The idea that Americans would become more accepting of transgender people as they become more visible in society makes sense to Michael Hanmer, research director of UMD’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement, which partnered with The Post on the survey.

“A long line of research shows that knowing members of a particular group leads to more positive attitudes toward the group,” Hanmer said. “We see that here, as there is a large increase in the proportion who say greater acceptance is good for society among those who personally know a transgender person.”

But, Hanmer added, despite “some evidence of this when we look specifically at support for allowing transgender women and girls to compete with other women and girls ... the shifts are much smaller, suggesting there are additional considerations involved.”

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Cherisse Villanueva, 34, a pharmacy technician in Honolulu, said she knows more than 10 transgender people and believes society should be accepting of them. “Everybody’s human regardless of how they feel or what they were born with,” she said.

But Villanueva said she does not believe that transgender girls and women should compete against cisgender ones. “Not to be mean, but biologically they’re built like a male, even though they identify as female ... so of course they would have the advantage of winning.” Villanueva, a tennis player, added that she is “already intimidated when we play co-ed tennis and there’s a male on the other side.”

Villanueva said she didn’t know how to resolve the question of mental health repercussions for transgender female athletes who are not allowed to compete against other women and girls. “This issue is such a dilemma,” she said. “It’s hard to make it equal.”

That concern is common even among people who generally support transgender people, said Mark Hyman, director of UMD’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. “People increasingly have an awareness of the issue and are empathetic toward the journey that transgender people are on, but the notion that they are competing against athletes that are born a particular sex are lagging behind that.”

Even the teammates of Lia Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania transgender female swimmer who won a national championship, voiced reservations, Hyman noted.

“They were totally supportive of her surgery and her path but opposed to her competing on the women’s team, so from a practical standpoint this is more evidence that there is considerable pushback,” he said. “There is significant momentum against transgender athletes competing. ... The survey results point to me that that’s a factor in how people are reacting to this.”

The poll was conducted online May 4-17, 2022, among a random national sample of 1,503 adults by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement. The sample was drawn through SSRS’s Opinion Panel, an ongoing survey panel recruited through random sampling of U.S. households. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.